Universal customer premise equipment (uCPE) is getting a lot of attention from service providers. AT&T has announced their uCPE platform and publicized how it “eliminates the many proprietary (and expensive) appliances that require you to install, configure, test, and maintain them using different skillsets.” In addition, Verizon has announced its uCPE offering to “expand the range of choices available to our customers, accelerate the enterprise transformation to cloud based architectures, and increase the agility of organizations to respond to market challenges.” Sounds good, but what does uCPE really mean?
In general, service providers want to simplify customer site deployments by replacing a panoply of dedicated appliances with virtual network functions (VNFs) running on a single, universal platform, as shown below. For maximum flexibility, the uCPE should leverage a pure, generic server architecture with no proprietary extensions or specialized hardware assistance.
Photo Source: ADVA Optical Networking
uCPE provides the means of achieving this vision by using network functions virtualization (NFV) to extend cloud-centric technologies all the way to the access part of the telco network.
Enough Generalities – Let’s Talk Specifics
Here are the attributes of an ideal uCPE:
- White box or commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) server for hosting. By using a COTS platform, service providers can decouple hardware from network functionality, which allows them to leverage best-of-breed components, all delivered on a common hardware platform. Additionally, the generic nature of COTS servers means that they can be locally sourced, accelerating service turn-up and removing the issue of import for difficult regions such as Brazil. This approach is in contrast to a specialized appliance, even a multipurpose one like the AT&T uCPE platform.
- Standard and open software architecture. Much of the benefit of the cloud comes from providing an open and consistent platform for software deployment. uCPE enables service providers to extend that consistency to the customer premises by leveraging standard components such as Linux, KVM, open source containers, and OpenStack.
- Multivendor solutions. The true value of openness comes from being able to combine a mix of open source and proprietary software components to deliver an innovative service. Moreover, because of the flexible manageability offered by NFV, uCPE helps ensure that service providers – and their end customers – do not suffer from vendor lock-in. When a new (or better) virtual function becomes available in the future, service providers can upgrade the VNF software running on the uCPE without sending staff or new equipment to the customer site.
- Zero touch deployment. Today’s network appliances have zero touch capabilities, enabling service turn-up without pre-configuration or manual operations. Operators should not have to give up this beneficial feature when moving from appliances to open systems. With uCPE, service providers can offer a common zero touch deployment methodology across a wide variety of vendor functions. In contrast to the appliance model, these capabilities may be vendor specific.
- Scalable solutions. The software-centric nature of uCPE means that VNFs can be integrated once and then deployed over a broad range of host platforms. This means that a single integration effort yields a service that can scale from very small branch offices up to corporate headquarters, and on into massive data centers.
- Able to fit into today’s networks – and tomorrow’s. uCPE solutions should be able to replace Layer 3 devices such as routers and firewalls, but also Layer 2 devices such as network interface devices. In addition, their software-defined data path ensures that they can be upgraded to support new and innovative protocols. Finally, by running on standard servers, they can take advantage of network interface cards to support non-Ethernet network interfaces such as TDM or DSL, as well as the inevitable evolution to faster and cheaper processors.
Bring the Power of the Cloud to the Telco Network
I described some specific benefits of uCPE above, but there is a larger strategic benefit: transforming the telco network into a cloud-centric platform. By moving from closed appliances to a software-centric platform, service providers can realize the vision of NFV and bring the power of the cloud to the network. However, this only works if they deploy a truly open and standard platform to host the cloud – whether it is in the data center, the central office, or all the way out at the customer site with truly universal CPE.